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Sabathia Remaining in Rotation More To Do With Reputation Than Performance?

Sabathia is 3-8 with a 5.59 ERA.

CC Sabathia (USATSI)

CC Sabathia (USATSI)

There comes a point at which performance overrides reputation. Late last season, many people believed that the Yankees were stubbornly clinging to the idea that longtime captain Derek Jeter should still be hitting in the top two spots in their lineup. In the month of August, Jeter gave manager Joe Girardi every reason to move him down in the batting order. Jeter batted a measly .207 and had a .226 on-base percentage as the Yankees’ offense sputtered. But instead Girardi stood by the Yankee icon as he entered the final month of his Hall of Fame career.

Sure, it was extraordinarily tough to come up with any justification for him batting in his usual spot. Too many, a shake-up seemed like a necessity, but based on who he was, Jeter remained in the second spot of the lineup until the very end. Now, the Yankees are faced with a similar conundrum concerning another proud Yankee and they may need to act a bit bolder this time around.

C.C. Sabathia pitched the Yankees to a World Series title in 2009 and won 88 games for the Bronx Bombers over five years; 19, 21 and 19 in 2009, 10 and 11 respectively, with another 15 in 2012 and 14 in 2013. He would pitch on short rest when needed and always seemed to save the bullpen when it was overused. There is no question that the soon-to-be 35-year-old lefty has already earned his contract in New York, but that shouldn’t mean he has earned a rotation spot for the duration of his time in the Bronx.

With just over 3,000 innings on the odometer including the post-season, a diminished fastball and a degenerative knee, the third-winningest pitcher currently active has looked like a shell of himself for quite sometime now. Sabathia lost a career-high 13 games in a poor 2013 campaign and had his velocity fall in 2014 before his season was cut short by knee surgery. Over those two years, the southpaw was 17-17 with a 4.87 earned run average in 40 starts.

Coming into this Spring Training, the Yankees were hoping to see a healthy Sabathia rebound to be a dependable pitcher. The expectations were no longer about him being an ace, but rather a pitcher who can give them 200 innings at a better than league average rate. Sabathia has remained healthy, but the results haven’t been pretty.

Sabathia has now started 16 games for the Yankees this season — a half-season’s worth of work – and he is 3-8 with a 5.59 ERA. He has allowed four or more runs in 10 of those starts and he’s recorded just one win since May 16. He has surrendered a league leading 19 homers, only Rockies right-hander Kyle Kendrick has given up more, and in only five of his 16 starts has he not allowed a long ball. In just 95 innings he has given up an incredible 115 hits and 59 runs, a total also good for the league lead. He is also in line to become the first Yankee to finish the first half of the season with at least eight losses and an ERA above 5.00 since Tim Leary (4-8, 6.30 ERA) in 1991.

Sabathia’s difficulties have been pronounced against right-handed hitters, who have trounced him this season to the tune of a .329 batting average and .937 OPS. And his struggles seem to be compounded after an opposing lineup has seen him once or twice. During pitches 1-25, he holds batters to a 234/.294/.404 line. But from pitches 76–100, batters hit Sabathia at a .333/357/.718 clip with 8 home runs.

However, last week, the Yankees took a superior starter, Adam Warren, out of the rotation because he has an innings cap and can help an overtaxed bullpen. They are also keeping an arguably better alternative, 21-year old Luis Severino, in the minors despite posting a 1.99 ERA in eight starts for Scranton-Wilkes Barre since being promoted from Double-A. The Sabathia situation is tricky, considering his status as the teams former ace who commands great respect in the clubhouse as a team guy — and, by the way, is pulling down $23 million this season.

“I know they have such respect for the guy and he’s such a good teammate, that’d be such a seismic move to take a guy like CC Sabathia out of the rotation,” play-by-play man Michael Kay recently said of the Sabathia conundrum. “But as great as he’s been in the past, he doesn’t have the same equity that Derek Jeter did. They won’t stay with him because of his past, but it’d be a very, very tough move. I just don’t know when they are going to do it, or if they are going to ever do it. … I don’t know how long you keep running out a pitcher, who has been representative, but can’t win. Every single game is so important. You might win this division by one game.”

Concerns about Sabathia were more evident as Girardi pushed the former ace’s start back from Sunday to Wednesday. By having his start moved to Wednesday, Sabathia will pitch only once before the All-Star break rather than twice. At the break it seems likely the Yankees will reset the rotation with Sabathia at the back end and from there it remains to be seen how patient they will be with the struggling lefty.

Perhaps the Yankees could be more patient with Sabathia if both Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda pitch with dominance, but both have been inconsistent. If the Yankees do opt to pull him from the rotation, they could bring Warren back at some point, upgrade with a trade before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline or call Severino up from Triple-A. Although the Yankees are hesitant to remove Sabathia from the rotation, the pressures of the pennant race may soon leave them no choice.

While some fans think of players as expendable once their skills diminish, a legacy should count for something. Great players like Sabathia deserve an extended benefit of the doubt and he has been given that. Moving him to the bullpen may be a humiliating move for the Yankees — and for Sabathia, given the two years and $50 million that he has remaining on his contract. But as he keeps getting lit up every fifth day, it’s time for the Yankees to forget what they’re paying him and think hard about sending Sabathia to the bullpen.

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